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Belly Health, Bitters, & The Microbiome

Belly Health, Bitters, & The Microbiome

Modern research suggests that the population of microorganisms living within as well as on the surface of our bodies, known as the microbiome, influences our immune response, neural development, digestion, and recent research now demonstrates our mood, behavior, and food cravings as well. According to Dr. Louis Vitetta, Matthew Bambling, and Hollie Alford, authors of "The gastrointestinal tract microbiome, probiotics, and mood Inflammopharmacology," we have ten times more bacterial cells than human cells and one hundred times more types of bacterial genes than human genes! From this perspective, we are in some way more bacteria than we are human! Perhaps this is why it is so important for us to respect a balance of the microbiome rather than treating all forms of bacteria and fungi as our enemies. Even more, the characterization and full understanding of this extraordinarily abundant ecosystem living within each of us is only just beginning, as recent studies hypothesize the majority of these microorganisms still have yet to be identified(1).  What is clear, is that if we wish to gain a grip on proper mind, belly, and body balance, we should do our best to maintain a symbiotic relationship with our microbiome. 

Mother nature has provided us with all that we need to maintain this special relationship, however due to inadequate nutrition education as well limited access to healthcare and health resources in many parts of the world, digestive health and related disorders continue to be a serious challenge for many people today. Harmonizing the microbiome can be achieved by implementing more nature into our diet, more nutrient-dense whole foods like fresh seasonal fruits and veggies, herbal remedies such as bitters, teas, and tinctures, as well as incorporating a thoughtful relationship with our eating patterns. That said, most modern holistic nutritionists will recommend allowing for a bit of realistic flexibility in our diet, just as long as it is supportive of our overall microbiome. For example, eating lots of fresh, whole fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains is great for maintaining a balanced microbiome. Specifically, asparagus, carrots, garlic, artichokes, jicama, leeks, onions, radishes, and tomatoes are all known to be microbiome superfoods, with exactly the kind of fiber that feed many beneficial species(1). Fermented foods such as kimchi, raw sauerkraut, miso, fermented vegetables, and even cultured almond or cashew milk yogurt as well are generally considered healthy sources of nourishment for our friendly bacteria. Probiotics in the form of capsules, pills, or powders that contain live bacteria can aid as a supplement to a balanced diet.

When it comes to getting our proteins, trusted experts recommend mostly plant-based nutrition, keeping meat consumption to less than half of our daily calories if possible, because studies have shown that too much meat is detrimental to the microbiome, which is proving to be similarly correlated to digestive, mental, and immune health. Refined flour, sugar, unhealthy fats, additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners are also harmful to our beneficial bacteria because those ingredients actually feed the wrong kind of bacteria in our microbiome (2).

In addition to eating lots of nutrient-dense fresh fruits and vegetables, herbal remedies like digestive bitters can also offer some amazing benefits to overall health and well-being. Bitters typically feature strong-tasting molecules such as the lactones found in herbs like Dandelion, Gentian, and Angelica which can activate gut secretions, modulate the transit time of the food we eat, and reduce a range of digestive imbalances.  Some of these plants have a long history of helping with infections, though until now, their mechanism of action has been unclear. The consensus is that our cravings for bitter taste probably serve as a protection against poisons and trigger digestion and detoxification processes in many different animal species, from caterpillars to human beings. These are old, evolutionarily-conserved detectors that activate self-protection mechanisms, ensuring that we consume less of any potential poisons, and that if we do, we neutralize them quickly(3). But what if bitter taste receptors protect us from more than just poisonous substances?

Dr. Noam Cohen, M.D., PhD from the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center and a team of researchers performed a study on bitter receptors and their relation to digestive health, which demonstrated that some individuals have a larger number of a particular kind of bitter taste receptors on the cells lining their stomachs(4). While these cells were trying to produce hormones to control appetite and blood sugar, researchers uncovered the fact that the cells were also secreting pro-inflammatory compounds, causing an immune response in the gut lining. This was linked to an increase in bitter-tasting compounds secreted by a specific microbiome makeup, which was very different from those found in the leaner individuals studied.The microbiome of wide-set individuals causes a marked effect on metabolism, making it difficult for them to lose weight and control blood sugar.  This type of bacteria also secretes an abundance of bitter-tasting molecules. And the stomach, in turn, triggers an immune response to try to clear out those potentially bothersome molecules.

Dr. Cohen also discovered that harmful bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria, secrete a group of molecules called acyl-homoserine lactones in order to carry out the process of growth and colonization. These lactones taste quite bitter; therefore, they trigger the bitter taste receptors found in our upper airway. In response, tiny hairs clear out debris more quickly, secretions increase, and the bitter-sensitive cells release compounds such as nitric oxide and immune proteins called defensins that neutralize the harmful bacteria(4). In summary, the bitter taste receptor seems to play an important role in managing our body’s reaction to disease-causing microorganisms.


For anyone who is interested in adding bitters to their daily dose of nourishment, Dragon Herbarium’s new Digestive Herbal Bitters formula utilizes a carefully selected group of natural sustainably sourced botanicals to share the potential of digestive bitters with our community! It is made with all-natural ingredients such as organic (*) Kola Nut*, Milk Thistle*, Dandelion Rt*, Burdock Rt*, Cardamom*, Cinchona Bark, Licorice Rt*, Angelica Rt*, Ginger Rt*, Orange Peel*, Cinnamon*, Gentian Rt*, Sarsaparilla*, Sassafras*, as well as a small portion of high-quality grain alcohol for extraction and preservation.  Each 1 oz amber dropper bottle of bitters is poured with practicality in mind, and is perfectly designed for your purse or travel carry-on, or for after a hearty restaurant meal! We recommend adding a splash of the herbal bitters tincture to a glass of chilled sparkling water! You can find our freshly-brewed bitters here on our website or at our Dragon Herbarium Apothecary Shop located in the outskirts west of Portland.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.*

  1. Luis Vitetta, Matthew Bambling, Hollie Alford
    “The gastrointestinal tract microbiome, probiotics, and mood
    Inflammopharmacology” 22.6 (2014) pg 333

    2. Foerster J, Maskarinec G, Reichardt N, Tett A, Narbad A, Blaut M, et al. “The Influence of Whole Grain Products and Red Meat on Intestinal Microbiota Composition in Normal Weight Adults: A Randomized Crossover Intervention Trial.” (2014) 9.10: e109606

  1. Glendinning, John I., Marci Tarre, and Kiyoshi Asaoka. “Contribution of different bitter-sensitive taste cells to feeding inhibition in a caterpillar (Manduca sexta).” Behavioral neuroscience 113.4 (1999): pg 840

  1. Lee, Robert J., and Noam A. Cohen. “Role of the bitter taste receptor T2R38 in upper respiratory infection and chronic rhinosinusitis.” Current opinion in allergy and clinical immunology 15.1 (2015): 14-20


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